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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Mandalay
February 3rd 2012
Published: February 5th 2012
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The awkward moment when a saffron-clad monk approaches, stoic in tranquil surroundings, he looks you straight in the eyes and asks, without joke or jest: “Excuse me sir, what is lovely jubbly?”

“Mandalay” has been a known entity to me since who knows when, the same way as Timbuktu is known by name but other familiarities such as depiction and, most importantly, place remained vague. What I had created as a picture of Mandalay sometime in my childhood; a vivid image of the Orient painted in shades of gold, must have been inspired by cheap, oil on canvas depictions found throughout Asia and far beyond. In hindsight, I seem to have unconsciously married the exotic name “Mandalay” with equally exotic images of the many-templed Bagan.

In truth, Mandalay exists as a dirty, busy city devoid of charm and lacking in atmosphere. It is not nearly exotic as I had imagined years ago, not in the least. It reminded us both of Phnom Penh in its most run down and dismal areas (perhaps given more time as we were in Phnom Penh, we might have found some reason to praise the city). During our time there we didn’t bother to take any photographs within the city itself; we’d seen this city a thousand times before and in our opinion there was little artistic value to be transferred to “film.”

Our bus, complete with neon chandeliers that rattled continuously as we rattled along the bumpy roads, arrived in the station at 4am. We were in no rush to get to our hotel as we could not afford to pay for a night in a hotel room that we would hardly use, therefore we refused the relentless offers from overzealous taxi drivers and attempted communications for a spot in a local pick up which the bus driver told us would cost only 500kyat. For some reason the pickup driver wasn’t keen for our business and drove off without explanation. It wasn’t long before we had arranged to share a pickup with a local woman that would take us directly to our hotel for just a little more. When we arrived at the guesthouse there was no room at the inn, our room would only be available in five hours so they let us get our heads down on the sofa in reception.

Now, I’m not too proud to admit that I’d been holding on for probably longer than is strictly considered hygienic to wash my hair on account of being shy of the bitterly cold water from our shower in Nyaungshwe. To my utter disappointment, I found yet another cold shower waiting for me here in Mandalay, so I was left with little choice but to brave it. After the long nights journey I was certainly in need of a good scrub and I am ashamed to say that my hair was beginning to show signs of the infamous “accidental dreadlock” to borrow a seemingly incongruous phrase from a quirky old friend of mine! 45 minutes later I emerged, cold but aesthetically much improved and knot free. The man brushing his teeth at the sink spat and turned to tell me that upstairs was a shower with hot water. Typical.

Later we walked around the city but there was little reward for our labour. We ate a very mediocre biriyani and wandered around a little longer until we passed a cinema. The cinema was showing a well known sexy, teen vampire movie which Chris has been known to enjoy in the past despite his usual good taste. I was already sweating in the heat so “cringe-sweat” wasn’t worth a second thought. I lead the way in and we paid 1000kyat for a ticket each, which is a fraction more than a dollar depending on the rate you get in the exchange.

The cinema was fully functioning though tacky in its semblance to an old time show theatre. We joked that when the velvet curtains were drawn back they would reveal a live cast of blonde-wigged Burmese actors that would re-enact the film for our pleasure (disappointingly not so!). We were treated to some slapstick trailers then a slide that read “All citizens to pay respect to the National flag.” The following two minutes were filled with a crackly anthem and an old fashioned video of the Myanmar flag flying over a blue sky. What should we do?! We looked around us for a sign; some were standing so we stood. We looked again and we were the only ones still standing, so we sat. It was too awkward for words.

Eventually the movie started and our embarrassment grew less. We strained to listen over the audience’s chatter; with no subtitles they probably wouldn’t have understood the plot, not that they missed much. Later, with our bellies in mind we set out in search for a chapatti stand with a good reputation. Our meal for two people consisted of tea, four chapattis, a pile of coconut rice and countless side dishes which in all set us back 1,600kyat and was delicious!

The following morning we found ourselves stood on the corner of 83rd street in search of another local pickup, this time heading in the direction of the township Amarapura. The ride cost just 200kyat each, which to put that into perspective, a bottle of water costs 300kyat. While Chris hung Dr. Jones style off the back I opted for the relative safety inside where I was welcomed by a troupe of elderly women who watched me, smiling affectionately, for the whole twenty minutes it took to reach our destination. We were tossed out into an ally that turned out to be the start to a busy, daily market which we passed through meeting inquisitive stares with the greeting “Mingalaba!”

Crossing the train tracks we passed through this small township where everyone said hello and pointed us in the direction of the famous U Bein’s Bridge without us having to ask for directions. We came first to a monastery which, thanks to Lonely Planet, has grown into a tourist attraction much like feeding time at the zoo. Scarily like it in fact! Tourists flock there on air conditioned buses to stay a short while and watch the monks eat silently. As we approached a small boy, a novice, wanted to talk to us to practise his very limited English. He was a pleasant boy and looking at our camera told us thoughtfully that some of the monks don’t like to be photographed. We thanked him for his advice and made to explore further but he blocked out path, suddenly and inexplicably convincing himself that Chris was a famous football player and demanding to know his name.

We walked down to the bridge just to see if it was as impressive as the pictures present it to be - we would cross its “World’s Longest...” expanse after lunch. In the meantime, we headed back in the direction of the monastery and by this time we were joined by many other tourists, though they didn’t stay for long.

The complex itself is huge, housing more than one thousand novice and fully fledged monks. Finding a quiet and shady spot we sat for a while to people watch without feeling too invasive. A monk in his late teens passed by and made eye contact so I smiled at him and he reciprocated nervously. I watched him take a few more steps, stall, turn to look at me, take a few more steps and turn again. “Where are you from?” he asked me. “Can you help me? Can I ask you a question? Please, wait while I get my book!” I agreed and he hurried back with an English dictionary.

His name was Nya Neiksara, aged 19 and a novice monk at the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery for five years thus far. Originally from a township close to Bagan, next year he would become a fully ordained monk. He told me that I was only the second foreigner he had ever spoken to and although he admitted to being nervous to speak with me he had chosen to do so because I had shown him that I was kind in smiling to him. He wanted to know why so many tourists didn’t want to speak to him? Was it because they are angry or they are ashamed because they think that all people in Myanmar are poor? I told him that I couldn’t answer that. Then, could I teach him some idioms? Of course I could! We spoke through a variety of subjects from English to religion and also about our families for over an hour. This unusual encounter was such a special and intimate experience. We parted having exchanged addresses and him kindly addressing me as “elder sister” according to Burmese tradition. I promised, and fully intend to send postcards from interesting places on my travels. I just hope that the strict government censorship allows them to reach him.

During this time Chris was also enjoying his own personal monk encounter, which began with the question, “Excuse me sir, what is lovely jubbly?” This particular novice was quite a character. He had a wry sense of humour, a fine collection of English swear words in his vocabulary, and a thirst for knowledge about the world. During their conversation Chris was invited by the monks to stay the night and eat at the monastery if he wished to. After an hour or so we reluctantly made our excuses to leave and whilst walking us out, the monk explained to us how English was so important to him, being his key to learning about the world. During scheduled “nap time” he chose instead to listen to the BBC news.

Before departing the monastery he asked Chris and I each to donate a gift. He asked each of us to teach him three new words, phrases or slang. When we gave him the words and explained them to him his response was that he would keep those gifts, and us, “in his heart forever”. He shook Chris’ hand in farewell and I of course did not offer my own as it is forbidden for females to touch a monk or any of his belongings. Then, to my surprise, he offered me his hand saying that “it does not matter yet, I am just a novice!”

Both Chris and I walked away from those encounters feeling “full up” and knowing that this morning would be one of the memories we recall once our trip is behind us. Interaction and exchange with local people is an essential element of any rewarding trip to any country, but in Burma especially, talking to its people is what it is all about.

We had lunch before setting out to cross U Bein’s Bridge, the longest expanse of teak bridge in the world. By this time most foreign tourists had already left but the bridge was still bustling with many local tourists, some of whom had bizarrely hired a photographer to capture some special moments. We were stopped countless times to pose for photographs and later a group of men showed us that they had had the (awkward) pictures of us together printed and laminated under the text “remember us.” This entertained Chris and I no end.

It was pleasant to cross, but the bridge itself wasn’t quite as impressive as some photographs would have you believe. Regardless we enjoyed being there; watching families take small boats across the river, friends spending time together, monks scuttling across the waters between monastery and pagoda. To the south side of the bridge, was saw (and heard) many people in the water singing and generally making a commotion. We went down to see what was happening and to take photographs. We found that they were fishing using big nets in shallow waters and frightening the fish into the nets. One small boy showed us his turned up longjyi (sarong) filled with what must have been a hundred small fish and a couple of huge ones.

The day was still hot so we settled for some shade in a pagoda on the other side. It was a small, unusual complex not unlike a set from “Alice in Wonderland,” with many-faced boulders and other curious shrines. Later we sat by the river for a drink and decided that instead of waiting around for sunset when the tourists would return we would instead head back through the market and “home” where chapattis awaited us.

We had one more day left in Mandalay and really very little to do other than try out a nice Nepali restaurant (research for our visit in a few months time) and to occupy the lovely little rooftop on our hotel. From where we sat, book in hand, we could see Mandalay Hill and were glad to have opted not to bother paying the $10 government fee to climb the unattractive little lump. From the roof it was easy to see how the city is changing. All around us buildings were being torn down, brick by brick, whilst others were going up, board by board. I noticed that so many of the occupied buildings have colonial facades, but it’s easy to tell that many are not the real thing. This run down city was a reminder of Myanmar’s status as “13th poorest country in the world,” particularly passing the cities inhabitants as they shower together at a well on a busy street corner as their homes do not have running water.

The next morning we would be Bagan-bound...

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5th February 2012

We have really enjoyed all of the blogs you have published on Myanmar. Gorgeous photos and great writing, we really hope to get there before the tourist hordes arrive and change the country too much. You encounter with the novice monk was great - he seemed so keen to learn and eager to learn about the world. Looking forward to your next blog!
5th February 2012

Thank you guys, glad to hear that you've enjoyed them :) The hordes haven't yet invaded, but there is more tourist infrastructure than we expected already!
6th October 2015

Well said !
I liked your observation re interaction and exchange with local people. We also look forward to interaction with locals to enhance and enrich our travel experience.

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